Schools are now back in full swing for students around the world, but unfortunately threat actors have taken their seats in the front row waiting for opportunities to attack. In recent years, cyberattacks on schools, education districts, and places of higher learning have caused major disruptions, halting classes for several days on end or, in some extreme cases, leading institutions to shutter their doors permanently.
This blog post explores common attacks on the education sector and discusses security best practices to help schools fortify their defenses. By understanding the threats and adopting proactive security measures, institutions responsible for shaping the next generation can stay safe in an increasingly hostile threat landscape.
Why Educational Institutions Are Textbook Attractions to Threat Actors
Schools, colleges, and universities are attractive targets for opportunistic threat actors, checking off many of their ‘boxes’. Often, attackers look for victims that face a lack of funding and the resources needed to build a strong cyber defense posture. Limited budgets and insufficient technical staff can create a cybersecurity gap in many school systems, especially for K-12 education providers at the municipal level. Getting the necessary approval needed for a more robust cybersecurity budget can also take years to finalize.
Threat actors also target victims that regularly process and store a wealth of sensitive (and therefore valuable) data. Educational institutions are seen as digital treasure troves, leading to a vast repository of personally identifiable information (PII), financial records, and sensitive research data. PII encompasses not only student and staff personal details but also parents’ information, creating a broad range of data that can be exploited for financial gain or malicious purposes. Attackers latch on to targets that present the opportunity to ‘gain many from one’.
The ongoing menace of ransomware attacks poses a particularly potent threat to educational institutions. Malicious actors encrypt critical data, demanding substantial ransoms for decryption keys. Given the mission-critical nature of academic operations, institutions are strongly incentivized to pay these ransoms to regain access to essential systems and sensitive research data, making them attractive targets for cyber extortion.
Tracking the Evolution of Cyberattacks Facing Schools
The evolution of cyberattacks against the education sector has mirrored the digital transformation schools and institutions have taken on in the past two decades. From ransomware and extortion to IoT vulnerabilities and DDoS attacks, educational entities face a complex and evolving cybersecurity landscape.
Ransomware and Extortion Attacks
Ransomware attacks involve encrypting critical data and demanding ransoms for decryption keys. High-profile cases have garnered widespread attention, underscoring the vulnerability of schools and colleges. The potential for significant financial losses and reputational damage has made ransomware a preferred choice for cybercriminals.
Threat actors have also learned that simply locking up school systems isn’t the only way to demand money from educational organizations, whose systems are repositories for large amounts of personal and sensitive data. Threat actors who breached Minneapolis public schools in March of this year circulated caches of personal information and sensitive student files that reportedly included social security numbers, psychological reports, allegations of abuse, cases of truancy, and assault investigations. The threat actors leaked the information on their Telegram account after the schools allegedly refused to pay a $1 million ransom.
In an annual study following the state of ransomware affecting the industry, cybersecurity researchers found that:
The rate of ransomware attacks in education is rising. 80% of lower education providers and 79% of higher education providers were hit with such attacks, way up from the 56% and 64% recorded in 2022.
Data encryption continues to be prolific. The rate of encryption has gone up from 72% for lower education providers in 2022 to 81%. The increasing rates reflect the growing skill level of threat actors who are sharpening their methods.
59% of higher education providers lost business revenue due to the impacts of ransomware just a little behind other widely targeted sectors like professional services, media, and entertainment.
Social Engineering Attacks
The rise of digital communication channels opened the door for social engineering attacks, particularly phishing and spear phishing. Cybercriminals craft convincing emails or messages to trick teachers, admin staff, students, and parents/guardians into revealing sensitive information, clicking on malicious links, or downloading malware. Educational institutions, with their diverse user bases, have been prime targets for these manipulative tactics, as students and staff may be more susceptible to such scams.
In early January, students in the Peel District school board (Ontario, Canada) were hit with a phishing scam involving several compromised email accounts. The emails consisted of fraudulent job posting and fake gift cards supporting a made-up cause; all topics designed to catch an unsuspecting student or their guardians off guard. Threat actors used the Peel District School Board logo and UNICEF Canada logos to make the emails look legitimate and requested the recipient to fill out their personal information in a questionnaire.
Disrupting online learning and administrative functions, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have become a common threat. Cyberattackers flood networks with overwhelming traffic, rendering websites and online platforms inaccessible. This disruption not only affects the continuity of education but also poses logistical challenges for administrators in managing the attacks and restoring normalcy.
The educational ministry of Greece this May reported a nation-wide cyberattack described as the most extensive in the country’s history. The attack focused on disabling a centralized high school examination platform through a Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack using computers from 114 countries to cause outages and delays of the exam process. Students were left in classrooms for hours, waiting for the exams to start. The attack continued for two days as the unknown threat actors persisted in their attempts to fully disable the system.
The popular use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in educational settings has introduced new risks. Smart classrooms equipped with IoT devices and sensors offer convenience and improved learning experiences but also present potential security vulnerabilities. If not adequately protected, these devices can serve as entry points for attackers, compromising sensitive data and network integrity.
Many schools and educational institutions monitor classrooms and school grounds for security purposes. However, camera systems are now an avenue of attack for threat actors targeting IoT devices. In 2021, cloud-based security camera company, Verkada, suffered a major breach where 150,000 company cameras situated across schools, factories, prisons, gyms, hospitals, and even police stations were compromised. The attacker was able to gain ‘super admin’ rights to Verkada’s system to access a database that included live feeds and some facial recognition technology.
Back To School Essentials | A Cybersecurity Checklist for Educational Leaders
Educational institutions have become prime targets for cyberattacks due to the valuable data they store and the increasing digitalization of learning environments. To safeguard against these evolving threats, many education providers rely on Extended Detection and Response (XDR) solutions to implement a wide range of cybersecurity measures across endpoint, cloud, and identity attack surfaces.
XDR in Defense of the Education Sector
Extended Detection and Response (XDR) is particularly useful for schools with limited budgets due to its cost-effective and comprehensive approach to providing security. XDR combines multiple cybersecurity tools into a single integrated platform. This consolidation streamlines security operations and reduces the cost of acquiring and managing individual security solutions. Schools can achieve a high level of protection without the financial burden of purchasing and maintaining multiple tools.
Small-budget schools often lack the resources, both in terms of personnel and finances, to manage complex cybersecurity infrastructures. XDR’s centralized management and automation features help maximize the efficiency of existing IT staff, ensuring that they can focus on strategic tasks rather than routine security management. XDR solutions can also be scaled up or down according to the school’s needs and budget constraints. This scalability allows schools to adapt their security posture as circumstances change, ensuring that they can maintain robust protection without overstretching their financial resources.
Knowing which IT security tools and solutions to use is the first step in building a strong, long-term cybersecurity posture against threat actors. The following best practice checklist can help school board leaders and IT teams bolster their defenses for the upcoming school year.
1 – Establish Real-Time Detection, Monitoring & Threat Response
Establish continuous monitoring of network traffic and system activities. Real-time monitoring allows for the immediate detection of anomalies and suspicious behavior, enabling rapid response to potential threats.
Investigate Extended Detection and Response (XDR) XDR platforms that offer enhanced threat detection capabilities by aggregating data from multiple security sources, such as endpoints, networks, and cloud environments. Having a holistic approach allows for a comprehensive view of the threat landscape.
Ensure that the chosen XDR solution incorporates automation and orchestration features, enabling fast, automated responses to detected threats. This reduces the burden on security teams and accelerates incident resolution.
2 – Obtain Full Network Visibility
Use Network Traffic Analysis (NTA) solutions to get deep insights into network traffic patterns and anomalies. By analyzing the flow of data, NTA tools can identify suspicious activities, unauthorized access attempts, and malware communication.
Implementing behavioral analysis tools can help identify deviations from normal network behavior. These tools learn what constitutes normal network activity and raise alerts when unusual patterns emerge.
Apply User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) to focus on monitoring user and entity behavior to detect insider threats and compromised accounts. By tracking user actions and data access, these tools can identify suspicious activities indicative of a breach.
3 – Promote User Training & Security Awareness
Educate all applicable users about the realities of modern cyber threats. Cybersecurity awareness training is important for students, parents/guardians, faculty, and staff members. Users should be able to recognize phishing attempts, social engineering, and other common attack vectors. Educational materials can be sent home with students, distributed by teachers, and built into Professional Development days by senior leaders.
Promote a security-first culture and encourage a conscious culture within the institution, emphasizing the importance of reporting security incidents promptly and following best practices for data protection.
Provide regular training updates. Cyber threats evolve rapidly, so ongoing training and awareness programs are essential to keep the educational community informed and vigilant.
4 – Strengthen Data Encryption & Access Control Measures
Implement encryption for sensitive data both in transit and at rest. This protects data even if unauthorized access occurs.
Enforce strict access controls and least privilege principles to limit who can access sensitive data. Regularly review and update access permissions to reflect changes in roles or responsibilities.
Periodically review and update access permissions to align with staff and student roles. Remove access for individuals who no longer require it, and grant access only when necessary.
Require multi-factor authentication (MFA) for accessing sensitive systems and data. This adds an extra layer of security, making it more challenging for unauthorized users to gain access.
When working with third-party vendors or service providers, review their security practices and ensure that they adhere to the institution’s access control and encryption standards.
5 – Prepare an Incident Response Plan (IRP)
Create a well-defined incident response plan (IRP) that outlines roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, and predefined actions for various types of incidents. This plan should be distributed amongst faculty and staff, and easily accessible as new iterations and updates are posted. Test and simulate cyber incident scenarios to ensure that the response plan is effective. This helps identify weaknesses and improve response times.
Regularly assess current, new, and upcoming risks that face the institution. As the institution grows and scales, its risk profile will change. Regular risk assessments ensure that the right cybersecurity measures are in place before attacks occur.
Establish partnerships with external cybersecurity experts and law enforcement agencies to enhance incident response capabilities.
Action from the Federal Government to Protect Schools
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal watchdog agency, reported last year that more than 1.2 million students were affected by cyberattacks in 2020, experiencing gaps in their learning ranging from multiple days to weeks. This number has only grown in the last three years with recent attacks now plaguing 1,300 public school districts across the U.S. including those in Arizona, California, Washington, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
This August, policymakers at the federal level held their first-ever cybersecurity summit to discuss ransomware attacks on schools in the U.S. In an initiative to bulk up the nation’s security safeguards, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a pilot program giving K-12 schools and libraries up to $200 million over three years to reinforce their defenses. Further, CISA has committed to help train and access cybersecurity practices at 300 new K-12 schools this school year. From the FBI, educational providers can expect all new resources on how to report cybersecurity incidents.
Safeguarding the data, services, and individuals within educational institutions is a challenging task that demands a well-coordinated approach. Collaborating with external cybersecurity experts and adopting a trusted security solution can help effectively tackle these hurdles.
With the increasing digitization of learning environments, real-time detection and monitoring have become indispensable tools in defending schools against opportunistic threat actors. To safeguard staff, students, and data alike, many in the education sector working within limited budgets and small technical teams choose to trust leading XDR providers for their security needs.
SentinelOne’s autonomous XDR platform offers a comprehensive approach to threat detection and response for education providers, simplifying cybersecurity operations and making them more efficient and cost-effective. Many educational institutions have partnered directly with SentinelOne to take advantage of AI-powered prevention, detection, response, and advanced threat hunting capabilities. SentinelOne’s Singularity XDR platform allows faculty and students to safely use Chromebooks, Macs, Windows and Linux devices in their day-to-day learning. With Singularity, school IT teams have full network visibility, allowing them to see everything happening across their network at machine-speed and prevent malicious behavior from developing into full-out cyberattacks.
To learn more about how SentinelOne defends all those in the education sector from K-12 schools to universities and technical institutions, contact us today or book a demo to see Singularity XDR in action.